Sound and vision blog

8 posts from October 2010

31 October 2010

Searching video, growing knowledge 2


Audio Search results page

OK, as promised, here's part two of the guide to the moving image applications available for testing at the British Library's Growing Knowledge exhibition. In the last post we covered Video Server, which is making BBC television news recordings from May 2010 available with a subtitle search facility. This involves some ingenious work underneath the bonnet, because TV subtitles comes as graphics, not text. The results are - we think - very impressive and other huge potential for integrating video content with other, text-based resources in a digital research environment. But what about video content that doesn't come with subtitles?

Many TV channels do not have a subtitles feature (generally in the UK it is only the terrestrial channels that do), so unless you have access to catalogue information, which can be scanty in any case, then you have to scroll through the video, or audio file, until you get to what you are looking for - if it is there at all. What is needed is software that converts speech to text. And that's what we've got.

MS Audio Search makes use of Microsoft Research Audio Video Indexing System, or MAVIS. This is speech-recognition software which takes an audio file and converts the sounds searchable text, by means of 'Large-vocabulary continuous speech recognition', which essentially means that it is underpinned by a dictionary and a language grammar controller. In practice you type in a search term, and up comes a range of videos with a column on the results page which gives those lines in the speech track where your search term was spoke. Click on any one of these and it takes you to a point roughly five seconds before the word is spoken and plays the video or audio.

For the purposes of Growing Knowledge we have made available around 120 hours of BBC television news programmes dating May-August 2010, plus around 500 hours of audio-only reording from the British Library's collection, covering oral history interviews with Jewish Holocaust survivors, talks at at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, and interviews with British painters, sculptors, photographers and architects. The software isn't perfect - there's around 70% accuracy rate - and it is essential to cross-check with the actual audio track that you have selected because the 'transcript' alone cannot be trusted as an entirely accurate record of what has been said, which is the same with subtitle or indeed with any form of optical character recognition (OCR). The software is happiest with clearly-spoken English, and struggles a little when there are multiple speakers.

But even so, wow. The potential is huge. Audio or video recordings can become immediately discoverable instead or requiring a period of time to analyse their contents, so long as there is a speech track. Because a dictionary underpins the resource, you can build up a thesaurus and keywords, and develop rich linkages with other text-based resources. Although it is early days for such technology, it will in time open up audiovisual archives to an unimaginable degree.

You can try out MS Audio Search and Video Server at the Growing Knowledge exhibition, which runs until July 2011. We're unable to make the video content available remotely through the Growing Knowledge website, but you can test out the audio files from the British Library and other institutions experimenting with MAVIS at Microsoft's test site. Do have a go, and just imagine what the future for research might be.

29 October 2010

An introduction to oral history

The British Library has had a department for its Oral History collection since 1988 though collecting in the area predates this.  The collections cover an extensive range of subjects covering major aspects of British history in the 20th century including the arts, science, politics, industry, women’s history and Jewish history. 

The Oral History team, composed of curators, cataloguers and project interviewers, will contribute to the ‘Sound Recordings’ blog to discuss aspects of the team’s daily work and to give insights into the challenges of interview preparation, digital recording and technology, digital preservation, cataloguing, and making oral history interviews available.  We will also use the blog to provide updates on current projects run by the Oral History team and National Life Stories (NLS), an independent trust within the oral history section of the Sound Archive, though one of our newest projects, An Oral History of British Science, has an independent History of Science blog.  NLS produces an Annual Review every Spring, an e-version can be viewed from here.  More about NLS personnel, including our project interviewers, Trustees, Advisors and freelance workers, can be found on our NLS who’s who pages

Selected recordings from NLS projects and oral history collections (including Artists’ Lives, Architects Lives’ and Living Memory of the Jewish Community) are available on the Archival Sound Recordings (ASR) website through the oral history package.  You can also listen to edited extracts from Artists’ Lives, recently published on the double CD ‘Connecting Lines: Artists Talk About Drawing’ which was distributed to aid the teaching of art and design in higher education.  The tracks have been grouped into eight themed ‘clusters’ and can be accessed here.   To increase the accessibility of our collections we will shortly be adding further recordings to the ASR website, including the George Ewart Evans Collection, one of the founding oral history collections in Britain, and An Oral History of British Science

25 October 2010

Recording of the Week: Duelling Deer

Cheryl Tipp, curator of wildlife sounds at the British Library Sound Archive, writes:

The annual rut of the Fallow Deer takes place during October and November. Rival bucks will normally use their voices to express their strength and condition, however encounters between evenly matched males will often end in a duel. The clash of antlers in this recording is extremely evocative - the call at the end is almost certainly produced by the victor. This recording was made by Lawrence Shove in Halden Forest, Devon in 1964.

British-wildlife-recordings Recording of the Week highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was chosen from the British wildlife recordings collection, a selection of over 600 nature recordings from around Britain. The British Library’s “ British Mammals CD” has modern digital stereo recordings of Fallow Deer and others for comparison.


18 October 2010

Recording of the Week: Jola men's song from Senegal

Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Curator of World and Traditional Music at the British Library, writes:

The first song on this wonderful track, O Lulum, sanken lejam, recorded in Badem Karantaba on January 17th 1982 by British composer Giles Swayne, is quoted in some of Giles' choral works. (A CD of these works, including this recording, will be published on 1 November 2010 and can be pre-ordered from

Giles-Swayne-Jola-music Recording of the Week highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was selected from the Giles Swayne Senegal Collection: nearly 20 hours of Jola music recorded in January and February 1982 in The Gambia and Senegal.

15 October 2010

CD prizes for the UK SoundMap's 1000th recording

The 1000th recording on the UK SoundMap is fast approaching, and to show our appreciation we'll be giving away three different British Library wildlife CDs to whoever provides that magic millenary upload.

The first CD is Dawn Chorus: A Sound Portrait of a British Woodland at Sunrise. It's a beautiful hour-long ambient recording without any commentary to interrupt it.

Dawn chorus 

The second CD is Vanishing Wildlife: A Sound Guide to Britain's Endangered Species. This features over thirty different animals, including adders, capercaillies, and recordings of bat sonar.


Finally, a copy of Secret Songs of Birds: The hidden beauty of birdsong. This innovative CD has the songs of 24 different species, with original recordings being played alongside digitally mastered versions where the natural speed has been altered to reveal the subtle intricacy of each song.


The winner will be announced here, on Twitter, and by comment on the winning entry's AudioBoo page. Good luck!

Update: the winner of the 1000th upload prize is long-standing SoundMap contributor sc_r, with his recording of the bells of Hull City Hall.

Ian Rawes

Editor, UK SoundMap

hashtag: uksm

14 October 2010

Searching video, growing knowledge


It's taken a while, but at long last we've been able to go public with our first digital video service. From today the British Library is showcasing its digital video management system, or Video Server, in the Growing Knowledge exhibition. Growing Knowledge is a small exhibition about the future of research, and "aims to challenge our audiences on how research is changing and ask what they want to experience from the library of the future". In practice this means presenting users with an array of mostly web-based projects which are pointing the way forward for research, with new tools, partnerships, forms of interaction, and outcomes.

Should you visit Growing Knowledge - which runs until 16 July 2011 - you will be confronted by a startlingly white room looking much like the set of a 1970s sci-fi movie (Sleeper? THX 1138? 2001: A Space Odyssey? - you take your choice). There is a browsable 19th century panorama on a surface table and an ingenious 3-D object viewer to distract your attention, but the main business is at four 'pods', which offer different arrangment of screens and and some particularly comfortable chairs at which to test the resources on offer. There are twenty-five of them, most of which you can also test online through the Growing Knowledge website. One that you can test onsite only (owing to rights issues) is Video Server.


What we are offering is BBC television news pogrammes which we have been recording since 6 May 2010 (general election day), which you can access by searching across subtitles. This is rather more difficult than you might think, as the subtitles provided for television programmes are not text-based but graphics (bitmaps) and need to be processed through the video equivalent of optical character recognition to convert them to text. This is what Video Server does, and it makes the news programmes word searchable. Above is the results page for an individual programme (The Andrew Marr Show) showing the subtitles down the left-hand side, with the term searched for highlighted. Click on all line of text and it takes you automatically to that point in the video.


Below the video player and subtitles is another clever bit - the thumbnails. It displays a thumbnail image every five, ten or fifteen seconds, and by clicking on any image it takes you to that exact point in the video. Thus the time-based medium is made word-searchable and visible in its entirety on a single page, so that the researcher can see immediately where to go within the video without having to browse through for thirty minutes or more. The potential for improved searching, and for linking up video content to other resources (especially news-based resources) through word-linkages is huge.


There's also a Workspaces feature, which enables you to select programmes on whatever theme you might wish to investigate and to view them all together. Eventually, when Video Server becomes a public service the workspaces will be private, accessible by personal log-in. For the purposes of the exhibition they are open to all.

Video Server is still a work in progress, and we are keen to receive feedback on its functionality and utility as a research tool. Behind the scenes we are recording more channels that just BBC 1, 2, 4, News and Parliament (which are the ones featured in the exhibition). The next stage for Video Server will be when it becomes a British Library reading room service, which should be by autumn 2011, and where we plan to make available a greater range of content. At present we are recording 13 hours of TV and 6 hours of radio per day - we hope to up this to 25 hours of TV per day quite soon. We're also aiming to add digitised video material from our non-news collections. Meanwhile we continue to test, and to add content - all new BBC programmes that we record (and we are doing so on a daily basis) will be added to the service in the Growing Knowledge exhibiton.

But what about television news programmes that don't have subtitles? What about radio and other forms of speech recording which present a huge challenge for the researcher who needs to find subjects quickly and efficiently? Well, there is another solution on display in Growing Knowledge - Audio Search. More on that in the next post.

13 October 2010

The decline of whistling

In Dennis Potter's drama series Pennies from Heaven, Bob Hoskins played a hard-up sheet music seller. While on his rounds he tries to enthuse a sceptical music shop owner:

It’s a great tune, everyone’s gonna be whistling it!

When you did last hear anyone whistle a tune? Out of around 900 recordings on the UK SoundMap so far, whistling is heard on just one or two. As Lauren Bacall said, all you have to do is put your lips together and blow. Yet tuneful whistling appears to be on the way out.

Once, workplace whistling was common enough for high-class establishments to put up signs forbidding tradesmen and staff from whistling. One can still be seen round the back of the Savoy hotel. The only people allowed or expected to whistle were the doormen, who had the knack of putting two fingers in their mouths and blowing a very loud whistle to hail taxis.

Despite the disapproval of hotels and their guests, whistling had a popular image, symbolising cheerfulness and, sometimes, calculated nonchalance. The English singer-songwriter Roger Whittaker launched his career with songs such as Mexican Whistler, Irish Whistler, and Whistling Swagman.

The entertainer and bird impersonator Percy Edwards, who died in 1996, could imitate by whistling the songs of hundreds of different bird species. His example spawned imitators. Sounds from Smithfield meat market were recorded in 1993 and added to the British Library's Archival Sound Recordings collections. The recordist noted that it was "initially spoilt by silly whistling from a porter". But on listening, it's clear that the porter was an accomplished whistler in the Percy Edwards mould, evoking the spirit of at least a 'dickybird', if not any particular species.

Whistling and birdsong have much older associations, and perhaps whistling first arose in deliberate imitation of birdsong while hunting wildfowl. The discovery of another rich historical link was described by the retired Thames lighterman Dick Fagan, in his book of memoirs Men of the Tideway. The lighterman's job was to steer cargo-laden barges or 'lighters' to their destinations using only the current and huge wooden paddles. After Fagan completed his apprenticeship, he was given charge of his own lighter:

One of the things I learnt to do, this may surprise you, was how to whistle. I ought to explain that every lighterage firm had its own kind of whistle – the sound, I mean, because all the whistling was done with the mouth and not with any instrument. Whistling was a way of identifying yourself across distances, especially at night, with other men working for the same company. Very useful. Getting it right was a work of art though.

On a day-trip to the countryside with his girlfriend, Fagan learns the origins of the firms' various whistles:

Finally we were sitting on a fallen tree trunk just dreaming. Then it happened. A loud shrill whistle, very close. My firm’s whistle [. . .] It had just come to me that the whistle I’d been using for many years was part of a bird’s song.

After a bit I spotted the bird as large as life up on a nearby tree with its beak open and the familiar notes pouring out of it as though it had been a lighternan all its life. In Bermondsey we only had sparrows. Who’s ever heard of a whistling sparrow? Then another bird started up with a different tune, after that another, and another.

I listened to them in amazement because I could connect each one’s song with the lighterage firm that had converted it into its own whistle. Soft green grass, graceful trees, peace, love – yet because of the birds’ song it was all connected with the hustle and struggle of river and dock life.

The whistles of watermen must have been invented long, long ago, when London’s river was still close to open country, when all these birds were singing in Shoreditch and Wapping, in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, when the largest ship wasn’t much bigger than the barges I now rowed every day.

The modern decline of whistling is probably because most pop songs no longer have whistlable melodies. There's also a general trend away from public voices relying on unaided mouths, vocal cords and lungs, towards loudspeakers, recorded announcements, and voice synthesisers.

Teabreak teaser: How many pop songs can you think of which have whistling in them? Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay is too easy, and Ennio Morricone film scores don’t count.

Ian Rawes

Editor, UK SoundMap

hashtag: uksm

08 October 2010

New collection of historic chamber music recordings on ASR

Much has been written on historic recordings of orchestral, vocal and instrumental music but far less research has been done on early chamber music recordings. The first batch of chamber music recordings made before 1925 are now online and one performing group, The Philharmonic String Quartet, has been chosen because their discs are rare and difficult to find. Indeed, a number of these discs were only acquired very recently in a donation from the estate of conductor Eugene Goossens who played second violin in the group at the beginning of his career.  The other original members of the group were Arthur Beckwith (violin), Raymond Jeremy (viola) and Cedric Sharpe (cello); all were born around 1890, so when the quartet was formed in 1915 they were in their mid-twenties.